Review: “The Jewels” (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

"The Jewels" - Pictured: Lauren Demerath (left) and Layne Manzer.  (Photo by Anthony La Penna)
“The Jewels” – Pictured: Lauren Demerath (left) and Layne Manzer. (Photo by Anthony La Penna)

Show: The Jewels

Company: TUTA Theatre Chicago

Venue: DCASE Storefront Theatre

Die Roll: 7

Right after I saw The Jewels at the Storefront Theatre, I hopped on the El and whipped out my Kindle App.  I downloaded the original short story by Guy de Maupassant, and I plowed through it.  The tale of a widower who gains a fortune by selling off his deceased wife’s jewels that he had formerly believed to be costume jewelry is a speedy read.  I believe I read it completely by the time I traveled from North/Clybourn to Belmont, if not Fullerton.  I discovered that much of what I’d just seen on the stage does not appear in the story.  And, you know what?  That’s fine by me.

To those who complain that Kirk Anderson’s adaptation of Maupassant’s tale deviates too far from the original, I would like to point out that this show was never billed as a literal translation (nor could it ever be).  It is “based on” the short story.  And it is pretty freely adapted.  And that’s the beauty of this work.

Anderson’s script introduces us to Rene Lantin (played by Lyne Manzer), who is a pretty happy fella, who affably smiles his way through life, enjoying his friends, his job, and pretty much everything else.  He’s a very pleasant everyman, one who the audience is quick to embrace.  The world hustles and bustles around him, but he seems at ease and comfortable in the simple life of a clerk.  His friend Alfred (a somewhat flaky, but charismatic fellow brought to life by Max Lotspeich) tries to get Rene out of his shell, and invites him to a  party.  After a bit of protestation, and a long walk in which he takes in the beauty of his world, Rene ends up at a dance and sees a beautiful woman across the floor.  He falls for her.  They get married.  We see snippets of their happy life together, and we mark their 6th anniversary.  All of that is covered in the first 6 paragraphs of the short story.  So much of what the play shows isn’t contained in Maupassant’s words on the page.  Had Anderson’s script stuck to the French original, we’d not have given two hoots about the main characters.  Instead, we get a tragic hero of sorts in Manzer’s Rene, we get a fun sidekick in Lotspeich’s Alfred, and most importantly we get the fully fleshed-out character of Emily, Rene’s wife (played by Carolyn Molloy).

There is an exquisite beauty in a tale retold in a way that explores it more fully, that jumps feet-first into the deep end and delves into what else is at its core.  At its core, the story is nothing more than an anecdote about a man who discovers that his wife had somehow procured expensive jewelry through inexplicable means (read: potential romantic rivals), and who becomes rich once his formerly beloved wife dies.

The ensemble work of the cast and the choreography of Aileen McGroddy fill the stage with activity that enables Keith Parham’s production design to burst with life.  Sound effects dart about the playing area by way of portable tape recorders carried by the actors, which effectively create a dynamic cityscape.  As Rene happily bounces through the first half of the play, we are happy to travel with him.  Most of his world consists of chairs, the stacking of which comes to represent the work of his office.  The rest of his world consists of movement, constant movement provided by the ensemble.

Things calm down once Emily enters his life.  She is a source of stability and goodness.  She is a major influence on Rene’s life.  so, when she takes an interest in going to the theatre regularly, he tags along.  Through a discussion with his friend Alfred at work we discover that Rene isn’t terribly fond of going to the theatre.  He’d apparently prefer to stay home and read, sleep, and dream.  And so, he send his wife off to the theatre alone, and he stays home.  When he does so, we are treated to a related tale of a girl who befriends a crippled bird, and who eventually is destroyed by a flock of other birds.

This tale of the birds is not a part of the original short story.  But it does foreshadow some of what is to befall the marriage of Rene and Emily.  Again, Anderson and his cast mine the intent of the original tale and create another layer of beauty and complexity.

Rene’s refusal to go to the theatre with his wife eventually leads to her dressing up (read: wearing new jewelry) and staying out late.  Something that doesn’t seem to bother Rene, except perhaps subconsciously (see aforementioned bird-themed dream sequences).  One night Emily stays out too late, gets soaked, catches her death of cold, and lives no more.

Rene’s life falls apart without Emily.  His comfortable routine is ruined.  His finances, too.  Eventually he goes to sell her jewelry, which is worth far more than he assumed, or could ever have afforded.  For a very brief moment, Rene feels he’s been cuckolded.  Then he fights back against that feeling of betrayal by hawking all the jewelry and living like a wild-partying fool.  He’s suddenly rich and loving it.  The disapproving spirit of Emily looks on.

Then, suddenly Rene is in his 2nd marriage and miserable.  This abrupt conclusion to the tale matches the original tale almost exactly.  Maupassant only addresses the situation in a single sentence which functions as quickly stabbed justice.

I enjoyed the tale as told by TUTA.  Had I not read the short story, and just taken the play at its face value, I would have been very pleased with what I saw.  After making the comparison to the original, I come away feeling exactly the same way.  I saw a great play, that stands on its own merits.  In fact, its additions and adaptations greatly improve on a short story that is mostly forgettable in the original French.  Here’s to elevating a piece to something new and better!

Runs through April 27th.  More info about the show at TheatreInChicago.com

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Today’s moral?  Never refuse to attend theatre with your wife.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”